re-posted here with the permission of
Owen Calverley  written for MASA in 2010


Despite repeated prodding, I have been avoiding writing this article for years because of the many different types of digital cameras out there. Now however with the imminent launch of our first Online Competition I can duck no longer, so here goes.

Photos of crafted items and artworks need to show the viewer exactly what the object looks like in terms of detail, colour, shape and size. Our photos might be used for catalogues, for competition entries, for magazine article submissions, for blogs or for emailing to potential customers. We are not taking artistic photos - we want an accurate rendition of the item. To achieve this, our photos must:

• Be in focus and sharp
• Display colours correctly
• Display the whole object clearly and acccurately

Here then are some practical tips and tricks that you can use to improve your photographic skills. While some of them apply to all kinds of photography, the emphasis here is on taking photos of OBJECTS.

Tip 1 - Size is always important

Always set your camera up to take photos at maximum quality and largest size. Yes, this will create massive files on the memory card, but cards are not that expensive anymore. (Treat yourself to a 2GB or 4GB card.) A small image is quick to save and easy to upload and share with friends, but one day you will take a truly amazing photo and you will not be able to print it or submit it for publication because it was too small.
Rule 1: Shoot big files and save small COPIES of the original for emailing.
Rule 2: Move those original big files to a folder on your computer's hard disk - don't leave them on your memory card!

Tip 2 - Get the colours right

Your camera needs to know where you are and what type of light is shining. Get this wrong and the colours in your photo will always be too blue or too yellow. (The technical name for this is White Balance.) White objects will be very badly affected. Look for the setting marked "sun, shade, flash" or symbols with a house, sun, tree, bulb, flash or similar. Set this according to where you are taking the photo or set it to "flash" if you are forced to use the camera's flash as the main source of light.

Tip 3 - Go out to get the light right

When choosing a spot to take your photo, remember that nothing beats outdoors on a cloudy day or a stoep with a roof and open walls. Strive for a spot with indirect natural light. Direct sun causes shadows and reflections on shiny objects. Too little light causes grainy or blurred images.

Tip 4 - Get close but not too close!

You want the item to fill at least 75% of the photo, so get as close as you can. Just remember that all cameras have a minimum focusing distance and if you bring your camera too close to the object it can't focus anymore and the photo will be useless. Rule 1: Read the camera's handbook to see it's minimum focusing range. Once you are as close as the camera will allow, you can use the zoom function to zoom in on the item.

Tip 5 - The more you shoot the luckier you get
Inanimate objects are fantastic subjects - they never get bored and they never fidget. Even more importantly, 100 digital photos cost the same as one, so shoot, shoot, shoot. Try different angles and different lighting. Try manual settings versus fully automatic. Shoot from close up, then shoot from further away using zoom. Use natural light outdoors, use flash indoors, use flash outdoors. Then view ALL your images and compare to see what worked and why.

Tip 6 - Sharp is good, blur is bad

Blurring usually happens when the camera is not held steady. The less light there is, the longer the camera has to keep the shutter open and the longer the shutter is open, the more chance of a blurred image. The obvious answer is to provide more light. And the most obvious source of more light is a flash. The drawback to using a flash is harsh shadows and reflections off shiny objects. The alternate is to accept that the available light is all there is and to steady the camera with a tripod or beanbag. How you hold the camera is also vital in avoiding blur. Use two hands to hold the camera, cupping your left hand under the lens. Keep your elbows braced against your body and hold your breath just before you gently press the shutter button. Don't stab the button - gently press downwards. If your camera allows you to change the ISO settings, then use a higher ISO when shooting in soft light. The higher the ISO setting, the more sensitive the camera's sensor is to light and it therefore needs less light to take a photo. Unfortunately, there is a trade off - at high ISO settings the colour becomes subdued and the quality can be quite grainy.

Tip 7 - Watch those angles and lines

Objects with straight lines such as framed pictures, boxes present their own unique set of challenges. The first challenge is when parallel lines don't look parallel on your photo, i.e. they either run away or towards each other. The only way to avoid this it to position your camera exactly in line with the centre of the object, both vertically and horizontally. For example with a framed picture, hang it on the wall with the centre of the picture at exactly eye level. If the hook is too high or too low, then stand on a stepladder or bend your knees. Look through the viewfinder and ask yourself if the object looks square. If not, then move left or right, up or down. While you're doing that, also check if your camera is perfectly square to the object and not rotated. For heavy items, lie them on the floor and stand over them with your feet spread apart. (Don't try this while wearing a long dress!)

The second common problem occurs when straight lines look as if they are curved. This happens because your camera's lens is curved and when you are either too close or too far away from the object the lens curvature distorts the photo. To remedy this, move closer or further away from the object and either zoom in or zoom out to compose the shot.

For boxes and similar 3D items where you need to show the depth, turn the box so that you are aiming at a corner. Keep an eye on those parallel lines. The closer you bring your camera to the object, the more distortion there will be. ("C" below.)

Tip 8 - Backgrounds are only important when you allow them to be

Our focus is on the object. The background should be as unimportant as possible and never draw the eye away from the object, compete with it or camouflage it. Ideally we should not even notice it.

The most obvious background is a piece of white cardboard or paper. When working with smallish objects this is easy as you simply put the object on a sheet of white paper and start snapping. However you soon realise that the best angles are usually from the front of the object and not the top. You now not only need white paper UNDER the object, you also need some BEHIND the object. The best way to achieve this cheaply is with a sheet of A3 or A2 cardboard stuck to a table with Prestik along the front edge and then allowed to curve gently up a heavy item placed behind it. The photo below shows how the sugar pot was photographed for this article.

Obviously if the object is totally white you can't use a white background! In such cases choose a soft shade of cream or grey. Avoid black, dark colours and also bright colours as they will either dominate the photo or create a mood. For large 3D objects like statues or pots, use a white or cream bed sheet to create a super-sized curved background. Two helpers to hold up the back corners of the sheet are very helpful.

Owen Calverley 2010